How do you teach your students this cardinal rule of writing? How do you train your students to replace narrative writing that simply chronicles events with lively writing that brings events to life?
Use three role models that your students look to every day: authors, you, and their peers.
Students Learn from the Best
Consider the following example from Jerry Spinelli’s Milkweed:
In this vivid description of the Warsaw Ghetto, Spinelli not only shows the reader what Misha, the main character, sees (parade of wagons, the men-horses, heaps of dead bodies, a cloud of flies, the barely alive living), but helps the reader feel the heat and hear the flies buzzing. Spinelli’s metaphors and similes paint a vivid picture for the reader.
Select a paragraph from a novel or story that your students are reading. Ask students to identify the specific verbs, nouns, similes, or metaphors the author used to paint a word picture.
Next, ask students to rewrite the paragraph, substituting general nouns and verbs and eliminating the author’s vivid details. Students can also begin each sentence with “it” or “and then” and never vary the sentence length. They soon will recognize their own non-descriptive writing.
Students Learn from You
Write a simple sentence on the board such as “The boy ate his lunch.” You could make the boy small and the lunch delicious to add a few details, but the writing should be vague and uninteresting. How can the writer jazz this up?
Ask the class to use more specific nouns and verbs without changing the basic meaning of the sentence. For example, by replacing boy with toddler, refugee, or skater dude; substituting eat with devoured, savored, or picked at; and choosing a cheeseburger, bread crust, or chicken leg, the writer creates a more specific image.
Similarly, ask the students to think of a simile or metaphor that would make this character memorable. Writing, “The toddler devoured the bread crust like a wolf gobbling down a rabbit” is almost as clear as a photograph.
The goal of this activity is to enhance the sentence without losing its basic meaning. Your students might enjoy ending up with, “The tiger inhaled the monkey” but they will have lost the point of this exercise.
Encourage students to play with adjectives but not rely on them. In the Milkweed example, Spinelli didn’t need to modify the word heaps. Making the cloud of flies peppery, however, enhanced the image.
As you model this, your students will see that the writing process is not stagnant. Good writers search for the best word to convey their meaning without settling for vague, inaccurate descriptions. In fact, to arrive at show, don’t tell writing, writers must often travel through many rounds of revision.
Students Learn from Each Other
With a partner, each student writes one or two “blah” sentences about a character or a setting. Partners must “jazz it up” by including specific sensory information that allows the reader to see, feel, or hear the person or place.
For example, a student could write “The driver honked the horn. He was impatient for the traffic to move.” His partner could change it to “The teenager blared the VW’s horn. He drummed his fingers on the steering wheel, leaned out the window, and yelled ‘Can you move any slower?'”
Repeat this activity with different partners or in small groups. In a group, students pass their boring sentences to the person sitting next to them. That student crosses out just one noun or verb and replaces it with a more vivid word or phrase before passing it along to the next person for further revision.
Give students several minutes to complete this activity and ask the last person to add a simile or metaphor. Allow the sentence to return to the original writer so students can see how their writing was revised and “jazzed up.”
In the End
You can incorporate these simple activities into your lesson plans for writing fiction or poetry or into your writing workshops for any grade level. Students will also have fun practicing show, don’t tell writing in their expository pieces. For example, if your students are studying the Revolutionary War in their social studies class, ask them to compose some simple boring sentences. Perhaps one student volunteers “The soldier shot the enemy who fell down dead.” After requesting that students supply specific details, this sentence could end up being “The British Lieutenant aimed his Brown Bess musket at the approaching blue coat. With accuracy born of years of practice, his shot started with a loud roar and ended with the young Boston lad keeled over as blood gushed from his stomach.”
Similarly, show, don’t tell writing can beef up boring science reports. “I thought the chemical reaction was strange” could be transformed into “The gray liquid steamed and bubbled, and I smelled an odor like rotten eggs emitting from the beaker.”
As students replace helping verbs with vivid verbs and add image-driven adjectives, appropriate similes, or dynamite metaphors, they will notice that their writing grabs the reader by the collar and doesn’t let go.
|Show, Don’t Tell Technology|
Ask a student to come up to the SMART Board and write a boring, blah sentence. Using a red marker, another student strikes through pronouns and replaces them with specific nouns. A third student then uses class input and a blue marker to strike through the helping verb and replace it with a vivid verb. For example, discuss the different nuances of substituting jogged, skipped, plodded, or slithered for walked. Have a third volunteer replace overused adjectives such as awesome or cool using another colored marker.Microsoft Word
In the computer lab, ask your students to open up a Word document. Point out the strikethrough function. In Word 2007, it is the abc button with the line through it in the Font menu; in Word 1997–2003, select Font from the Format menu, and check Strikethrough under Effects. You can also have students make all of their strikethrough edits in red or another distinct color.
Play Jazz It Up by telling students to type two copies of two to three boring sentences. Label one Original and one Revision. Ask students to get up and move one computer over where they will have the opportunity to use the strikethrough and red font functions on their friend’s text. Instead of deleting a word they want to change, instruct them to cross it out and add a word in red.
When they’re done revising their peers’ sentences—without changing the meaning of the sentence—they then return to their own seat and read how their friend revised their work.
You will need a pbwiki account to view my wiki. If you don’t already have a pbwiki account, consider signing up for one (you’ll be glad you did—wikis have wide classroom applications.)
After you have looked at the Sample Activity, click on Student Samples to see a few examples. Students who have Internet access at home can go back online and play with their sentences for another round of “Jazz It Up” revision. (Note: You will be unable to edit these pages, this is for demonstration purposes only.)
In addition to reinforcing Show, Don’t Tell concepts, students who have written and revised sentences using these technologies have practiced keyboarding skills, focused on vocabulary, and used critical thinking to evaluate writing. More importantly, through technology, they have seen that revision can be fun.
Previously published in Middle Ground magazine, February 2009